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Is the hyperloop finally too big to fail?

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With a reported valuation of $700 million, it’s time to take stock of where things are with our favorite tube-based transportation system

Hyperloop One

Today, Hyperloop One announced it raised an additional $85 million in financing, bringing its total haul to $245 million and a likely valuation of more than $700 million. That’s a lot of scratch for a transportation startup with no commercial product, no revenue stream, no government approval, and no proof that its ultrafast transit system would even be safe for human passengers. Nonetheless, the company has managed to convince a variety of wealthy backers and governments to buy into their fantastical dream of moving people and packages through airless tubes at near-supersonic speeds.

Even before announcing the results of its latest round of fundraising, Hyperloop One’s executives were talking about shifting to a build-phase. “This is the dawn of the commercialization of the hyperloop,” Hyperloop One chairman Shervin Pishevar told me in a recent interview. “We want to be the IP company, the automation control system, and we want to help spawn thousands of companies around the world that are helping build this locally in their countries.”

Sure enough, the clock is ticking on their effort. They’re not the only ones pursuing Elon Musk’s dream of high-speed, tube-based travel. Musk himself has claimed that his tunnel-digging venture the Boring Company has received “verbal” approval from the Trump administration to build a New York City–DC underground hyperloop. Musk tends to overpromise, but his Tesla-branded hyperloop pod set a new record recently, hitting 220 mph (335 km/h) — or about 20 mph faster than the speed achieved by Hyperloop One’s own X-1 pod a few weeks prior. Suddenly, we have a hyperloop arms race on our hands. What better way to ensure this technology doesn’t evaporate in a cloud of hype like so much vaporware?

Hyperloop One’s fundraising announcement wasn’t the only bit of good news from the company in recent weeks. They recently named the 10 winning submissions in their global contest to find the best location for future hyperloop tracks. These weren’t the student teams showing off (admittedly) crazy-fast science projects at SpaceX’s hyperloop competition. These were real-life government regulators, planners, and engineers who have the expertise and know-how to build real hyperloop routes. In addition, the company said it has entered a partnership with Colorado’s transportation department to conduct a feasibility study of building a hyperloop route through the heart of the Rocky Mountain state.

Hyperloop One has already completed similar studies in Dubai, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States. This underscores the remaining piece to the hyperloop puzzle: regulatory approval. The company has yet to receive the green light from any governments or regulators around the world. Pishevar says that this is because the regulatory framework that could approve of a hyperloop project doesn’t currently exist yet. “It is not high-speed rail,” he told CNBC today. “It's not rail.”

The United Arab Emirates, with its addiction to all things glittery and futuristic, is the likeliest candidate to give the company the go-ahead to start breaking ground. DP World, the country’s shipping conglomerate, invested in Hyperloop One’s latest financing round, while its founder, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, sits on the company’s board of directors. Meanwhile, Rob Lloyd, CEO of Hyperloop One, has said he hopes to break ground in UAE by 2019.

But $245 million only gets you so far. The early costs associated with the hyperloop are open to debate, but Musk’s original prediction of $6 billion to go from from Los Angeles to the Bay Area seemed to dramatically understate the cost of designing, developing, constructing, and testing an all-new form of transportation. The hyperloop also faces huge right-of-way challenges, which could further flummox the hyperloop’s goals. Some experts wonder whether a Dubai hyperloop would simply become a showpiece similar to Shanghai’s magnetic-levitation train.

“This is a multi-decade effort,” Pishevar said. “Even though we’re moving very fast and doing all this in two-and-a-half years, it’s going to take decades. Reshaping cities and roads and highway systems and metro systems and rail systems and airports, it’s going to take decades of work. But the value created for the world will justify all that effort.”

A couple years ago, if the hyperloop failed to meet the milestones it set out for itself, many people would have written it off as a curiosity and then promptly forgotten about it. Now, with its coffers bulging and some governments seemingly poised to give the green light, the hyperloop has legitimate stakes. Its success could set off a real revolution, and its failure could have a profound chilling effect on the future of transportation.

Correction: Elon Musk originally predicted that $6 billion would be the total cost of building the hyperloop, not the per-mile cost, as the article originally stated.